Ammen T. Suleiman (from left), Natalie El Dabh and LaShawn Little. Photo / Michelle Berki

Karamu’s ‘The Lake Effect’ more bluster than blizzard

By Bob Abelman

One of the hardest things about being a playwright must be coming up with a clever script, handing it over to a theater company, and hoping that there is some resemblance between what is on the page and what is on the stage.

Considering that Rajiv Joseph penned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominated “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” received the 2013 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, and earned the 2015 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for “Guards at the Taj,” surely his one-act “The Lake Effect” is more fascinating, funnier and faster than the version of it being performed in its Ohio premiere at Karamu House.

The play takes place during a few frigid nights in Cleveland, amidst a lake effect snow storm. Bernard (LaShawn Little), a bookie, stops by the Indian restaurant he regularly visits, hungry for a plate of lamb biryani and some conversation with his close friend Vinnie, the restaurant’s owner. Instead, he finds Vinnie’s angry and estranged son (Ammen T. Suleiman), who has returned from New York upon receiving word that his father is bankrupt and selling the restaurant and who is reunited with his sister (Natalie El Dabh) upon their father’s sudden death.

The trio examine the past, learning about Vinnie and each other’s relationship with him through a piecemeal conversation filled with intimate revelations, exposed secrets and unsettling facts. And they each consider a future influenced by this newfound knowledge as they struggle to find a place in the world.

But in this production, in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre and under Celeste Cosentino’s meagre direction, the play lacks tension, intrigue and the humor embedded deep within Joseph’s dialogue.

Rather pedestrian performances turned in by Suleiman as Vijay and El Fabh as Priya make it so. Their acting is artificial and set at two speeds – idle and irate – and when the performers are not speaking, the acting is nonexistent. What should be played as relatable comes across as unlikable. Little, on the other hand, is a delight as Bernard – affable, vulnerable, always interesting but sadly outnumbered on stage.

The pacing in this production is off as well. Flat moments kill the play’s subtle humor and tender moments. And in the intimate Concert Hall performance space where designers Walter Boswell and Steven Barton have retrofitted a nicely rendered restaurant dining area, the performers move tentatively and always as if instructed to do so.

“The Lake Effect” is an intelligent and nuanced work, but not so you’d know it from this Karamu production.

On stage

“The Lake Effect”

WHERE: Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 26

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7070 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 5, 2017.

Lead image: Ammen T. Suleiman (from left), Natalie El Dabh and LaShawn Little. Photo / Michelle Berki